Morocco has undoubtedly been the dark horse at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, with their excellent performances capturing the minds of their fans, who created an outstanding atmosphere throughout all four matches played by the North African team at Qatar 2022.
The defence was nothing short of spectacular, relying on stalwarts like Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraoui, two star players, featuring at PSG and Bayern at club level, but there was some amazing work done by the midfield compartment, where Azzedine Ounahi has really shined, becoming the lynchpin of that part of the pitch.
But Ounahi was rarely considered a crucial player for Morocco even before the start of the competition, with the work of a defensive midfielder, or a box-to-box one in some matches is usually overlooked. A powerful engine, that runs a lot and covers almost the entirety of the pitch, Ounahi grew of age at Qatar 2022 and was a key factor for Morocco’s rise.
In fact, he is the record holder for the largest number of kilometres run in the French Ligue 1, as he covered 14 kilometres on the pitch in a single game, leaving everybody in awe of his physical capabilities, considered one of the best both at club level and in international level.
Yet everything could have panned out very differently for Ounahi, who was born in the capital Casablanca, but his entire career has been directly linked with France, knowing an otherworldly rise in the past years, from the bottom of the pyramid to the top.
He earned his first break with Angers, the French first league club in 2021, and he never looked back, trying to be as complete as a player as one can be. While running over 10 kilometres a game, he has also rivalled Lionel Messi as the player with the most completed dribbles in the first French league this season.
“He’s a boy full of talent and has a great future. He’s wise to stay where he is at a club where he will play and work hard. He knows he can have a great career,” said former Morocco coach, Vahid Halilhodzic about Ounahi.
But Ounahi’s star has really started to shine only in the past year, with May 2021 seeing the Moroccan midfielder playing at US Avranches, in the French third league, where he finished in 13th place out of 18 teams in the standings.
A product of the Mohammed VI Football Academy in native Morocco, Ounahi believed he got his first big break in 2018, when Strasbourg, a Ligue 1 team in France, scouted him and brought him to France. However, his dreams were short-lived.
“I signed a pre-contract agreement on the understanding that I would later sign a professional contract. I was convinced that would happen after lockdown, but it turned out I was wrong,” said Ounahi for the official FIFA website.
“That’s football. I accepted it, but I was still sure I had what it takes to play in Ligue 1 or Ligue 2,” added the Moroccan midfielder. But as history shows, it took some grit and courage to drop to the third level in France for the big break to come.
Until 2022, Ounahi was unknown even in Morocco, until Halilhodzic, the national team coach, called him up for the African Cup of Nations. There, Ounahi shined and teams started to get more and more interested in him. How could a diamond in the rough slip so unnoticed, asked many?
“What’s happened to me is incredible. I was playing in the National [French third tier] a year ago and I never imagined that I’d now be playing in a World Cup. I’ve developed and worked hard, and signing for Angers gave me the opportunity to be called up,” added the 22-year-old midfielder.
Sure, teams have inquired about him, but he pledged his future to Angers, never forgetting the chance given when he was at the lowest point of his career. And in the space of a single year, he went from a totally unknown quantity, to a starter at the FIFA World Cup.
There, he became the midfield dynamo Morocco needed, running 14.7 kilometres in the 0-0 draw against Spain, before being substituted in the 119th minute. While exhausted, Ounahi still found the power to celebrate, as Morocco qualified in the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup for the first time in history.